Half-assed prophecy

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The Savior will be born somewhere in East Africa, most likely. He may already have been born; we have no way of knowing. In fact, chances are he will live and die unknown to the outside world – which is to say, the world of scientists, far-away governments, pharmaceutical companies and the international press. Within a wide circle of towns and villages, however, he may be fairly well known, though unrecognized as anything special. Most people will profess to hate him, but enough will love him to spread his unique and invaluable form of resistance throughout the region – and eventually around the world.

A few things we can know for certain. His sex and sexual orientation: a male heterosexual. His character: to be an effective savior, he will have to be at least moderately promiscuous. The more sex partners he has, the better it will be for the survival of humankind. So we know the type, yes? Or we think we do. Amoral and narcissistic, possibly even to the extent of being what psychologists call a psychopath or sociopath: an individual who is apparently constitutionally incapable of experiencing true empathy. Far from the anti-social ax murderers of the popular imagination, true psychopaths are much more likely to be extremely charismatic. They seem friendly and likeable – and why not? They are not burdened by the kinds of doubts and insecurities that haunt the rest of us, the 95% of people who worry about how they are perceived and actively imagine what others around them might be feeling. Many successful leaders are psychopaths: positions of power in most societies select for the very traits they possess in spades. Some psychologists speculate that power is the only real compensation for the emptiness that psychopaths say they habitually experience.

Of course, the Savior could turn out to be a relatively ordinary guy who likes having sex with a lot of different women. I am simply discussing probabilities. I should mention that there will need to be more than one of him. In fact, humanity will need a different savior for every deadly viral infection in the coming shit-storm of plagues that will likely kill between 80 and 90 percent of the human population: around 80 percent from outright infection, the remainder from circumstances related to the breakdown in social and political infrastructure. Mortality will be highest in the so-called developed world, where populations are densest and where citizens are most highly dependent on complex food, water and energy transport systems.

How does a species evolve resistance against a retrovirus like HIV-1? First, let’s recall how a retrovirus works. Basically, it tricks a cell into fusing with it, then, once inside, adds its own DNA to that of its host. Ordinary viruses employ the more direct method of conquer, pillage, destroy. Vaccines work on them because – unlike retroviruses – they don’t corrupt and disable the T cells needed for successful counterinsurgency by the host’s immune system. Vaccination – simply injecting a weakened form of the HIV-1 virus in hopes of strengthening the body’s defenses – is unlikely to work against AIDS. Retroviruses are simply too devious in their subversion of the immune system.

Some 30 million years ago, our primate ancestors survived a similar retroviral Armageddon. The details are unclear, but a record of sorts has been preserved right in our DNA. Roughly eight percent of the human genome, it seems, is of viral origin. The computer analogy is helpful: these are strands of code that have long ago been disabled by the removal of key parts that enabled their reproduction. They exist harmlessly in every cell in our bodies, including the hard drive – our germ cells. Right in the DNA of the sperm and the egg.

Actually, it is possible that these lines of code still perform some useful function, in blocking similar codes from re-infecting us. But 30 million years is a long time, and the new retroviruses are too different for this legacy to be of much use. Its presence does serve as a reminder of what the body is capable of, however.

Studies of a colony of mice in a barn in California back in the late 1980s provide clues about what may have happened, and what will need to happen again. When a team of pathologists from UC-Davis discovered the colony, it was in the throes of an especially virulent retrovirus that was being transmitted to infants as they nursed. But a small segment of the population had developed immunity, and the researchers quickly identified the genetic fix this group possessed. A single mutation in a single mouse had passed into the germ cells; the small group of survivors were its offspring.

Organisms, fortunately, are not very much like computers. We are not really “programmed” – much less “hard-wired” – by our DNA, because much of what happens in our development from one moment to the next, from fertilization onward, is guided by what the scientist can only describe as random chance. (Religious people may conceptualize it differently, of course. In fact, their conceptualizations are not only not “wrong,” but possibly highly useful in helping the mind/body fight off infections – at least from garden-variety viruses or fungal and bacterial infections. Sometimes even cancers. But probably not the most powerful retro- and lytic viruses.)

Mutations are one particularly important form of change introduced through random chance. Although the vast majority of mutations have negligible effects within a population, and some are highly disadvantageous (sickle-cell anemia, babies born with two heads), a low level of mutation is essential to the preservation of life on earth. A damaged or incomplete HIV-1 provirus (the DNA version of retroviral RNA) should eventually arise. It may arise more than once, but chances are it will arise soonest and spread most quickly in that part of the world currently most devastated by AIDS: East Africa. It will work, pathologists feel, by reproducing just the viral proteins that form receptor sites on the surfaces of host cells, without making copies of the RNA for intercellular travel and infection.

Viruses are a lot like multinational corporations: they aren’t really living organisms, but they act like they are. They are obligate parasites that possess merely a set of detailed instructions, a template for their replication. Unlike true life forms, all the energy and material necessary for their reproduction must come from elsewhere – from their unwilling hosts. Unlike a predator, they cannot be said either to love or to hate their prey. One doubts, in fact, that they possess any form of sentience whatsoever. They seem deathless, machine-like – immortal.

But just like corporations, they are fiercely competitive. Retroviruses, once established in a host cell, engineer it to make enough receptor-binding proteins to completely fill the receptors on the surface. Thus, new invaders will have nowhere to dock, no port of entry. If a mutation produces a defective copy of the retroviral DNA capable of locking out the original and all others like it, the host cells will be saved. If those cells include sperm or egg cells, the offspring of the parent organism will inherit an immunity to infection by the retrovirus. This is what happened among the mice in California and presumably among our primate ancestors as well.

Could such a mutation be manufactured in the laboratory and simply injected into AIDS patients? Perhaps. An article in the February 2004 issue of Natural History, “Fighting HIV with HIV,” by T. V. Rajan – my source for of most of this information – explores the possibility in detail. As Rajan envisions it, though, the procedure would be complex, high-risk, and hellishly expensive. Given the political and economic near-impossibility of providing the currently effective drug treatment to sufferers in the impoverished regions of the world where AIDS has the most impact, it is difficult to share the author’s enthusiasm for this treatment. And even if “present technical limitations” can be overcome, the treatment would rely on bone marrow stem cell inoculation. Only regular body cells, not germ cells, would be involved. Intentionally altering the human genome is considered beyond the pale – which is not to say, I suppose, that it couldn’t or won’t be done.

One can imagine a scenario quite different from our opening one in which “saviors” unwittingly originate successful mutant competitors with HIV-1, HIV-2 and other retroviruses soon to spread, through various means, among the grievously over-concentrated and over-consuming human population. In this alternate scenario, a fabulously rich individual – perhaps a psychopath also – himself becomes infected. He decides to break the unwritten rule and employs teams of molecular biologists and genetic engineers not merely to administer the stem-cell inoculation therapy on himself, but to insert a defective copy of the retrovirus into his own sperm cells. Much of humanity will die, he calculates, but everyone with my genetic material will survive. My genes, he thinks: mini me. The Master Race!

But he must be careful. Other powerful people, other amoral heirs to ill-gotten corporate wealth may be plotting something similar. Therefore he must also finance a world-wide network of agents to hunt down and eliminate the competition. He studies the history of past epidemics, like the Black Death of 14th-century Europe, and realizes that the retroviral Armageddon will only provide a brief breathing space, maybe a century or two. A narrow window of opportunity for his descendents to cement their control over increasingly scarce fossil fuels and other non-renewables. They will have the will to such power, of course, because they will be – many of them – just like him. But for those who might be a little soft, who might be tempted to share, he will have to create some social mechanism capable of inculcating his values and outlasting the centuries. A new religion . . .

Call it a fable, call it science fiction. I am only playing with possibilities, based on very limited knowledge. But if a hundred years of occasionally prescient futuristic stories and novels have taught us anything, it is that humans are not very good at anticipating the unforeseen. Most “realistic” scenarios are simply extrapolations from current technology, and become prescient in hindsight through a combination of blind luck – random chance – and strong insights into human nature. I’ll have to leave it up to the reader, then, to decide how well my guesses might approximate real human outcomes.

That there exist individuals sufficiently amoral for all of this we should not doubt. That neither one of my hypothesized characters would know of the other is also likely: they move, after all, in parallel worlds with little meaningful contact by virtue of the very bonds of extreme dominance and servitude that unite them. Being a mushy headed, religious-when-it-isn’t-too-demanding kind of guy, I like to imagine the Savior not in fact as a psychopath but as a good guy, deep down. Someone who actually, really likes women – a lot. And who is attractive to them not through an air of dangerous power but due to his fundamentally empathetic nature. It seems as least as likely as the alternative.

The second guy – he’s evil. He probably does sinister things, like have all his offspring marked at birth in some special, secret way that will allow them to recognize each other in later life as the Chosen. He will have an Achilles’ heel: his own arrogance will make him blind to the possibility that Nature is bigger, wiser and more powerful than all humanity put together. The priesthood he spawns won’t realize until it is way too late that their semi-mythical progenitor had competition, and that this competitor, by spreading copies of his superior resistance all over the place – for free! – has won the day.

But that’s why he, and not the evil rich guy, is the Savior. He will not, of course, benefit personally from the innovation in his genes. In fact, his body will likely be so riddled with the disease that his own life – and the lives of most if not all of his partners – will be incandescently brief. That’s why he needs to be so promiscuous in order to succeed at the unknown task that Fate has marked out for him.

As an afterthought, it seems to me that in the long run, for a social animal, selfishness and power-lust are just not advantageous traits. That’s why they’re relatively scarce in their pure form. Love, empathy, and the capacity to truly enjoy lots and lots of sex: these are advantageous traits. You can deride the bearers of such traits all you want: call them arty-fartsy, call them yellow, call them meek. But in the end it is they, and not you, who will inherit the earth.

Interview with a fungus

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“The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m years ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two vital niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In one niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of detritivores whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the ecological system. Without our work, life on earth would long since have ground to a halt for lack of raw materials. In another niche, we act in partnership with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients. These partnerships are called mycorrhizas — myco for the fungus, rhiza for the root. Animals in turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So the fungi play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are critical to maintaining the biosphere in good working order.’
‘Where does mankind come into your history?’
‘Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the time they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the genus Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that yeast settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose existence up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish and short. This began what we call the honeymoon period in the relationship of man and fungus. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last very long.'”

Read the complete essay, “Interview with a Fungus,” by Diane Brooks Pleninger, here. This was the winner of 2003 writing contest, with the theme, “Do We Need Nature?” sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell and The Economist. A good read.

Monsters ink

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I decided to post the entire essay below, under yesterday’s entry, rather than split it and put the second half here. For those who first read it yesterday afternoon, that portion has now been significantly rearranged. (There may be a few more minor corrections, but I don’t anticipate substantial changes – this is, after all, just a blog!) I apologize for the confusion.

I’m wondering if I have invented a new genre here? It’s clearly not a book review of Quammen’s Monsters of God, since I haven’t read it yet. Nor could you call it a book preview, since I have little idea of what’s in it – I was merely riffing on what I take to be a few of the major themes. A “book anticipation,” perhaps?

UPDATE: repeat of conclusion removed as a pointless exercise. I will not pander to the attention span-deprived!

Monsters of God

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m exhausted. I spent most of last night battling, or running and hiding from, Evil.

They weren’t full-fledged nightmares – I’m a lucid enough dreamer to nip those in the bud, usually by waking myself up and going to the bathroom, as I did around midnight. But it is a tribute to the hold of monsters and demons on the imagination that I returned to the same dream when I fell back asleep.

I can’t remember many of the details now, but the monsters were basically alien invaders of indeterminate form who had the power to assume human shape. You could recognize them only when they opened their mouths, literally and figuratively: their voices were strange and machine-like, and they had many rows of monstrous teeth. (This has precedent for me not only in the movie Coneheads, but also in the 14th century classic of English mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, where we are told that the devil is anthropomorphic in every respect except that his mouth lacks a roof. Someone checking his upper jaw for cavities would see the fires of hell roaring away inside his skull – which vision would produce instant and irreversible insanity.)

And of course my dream monsters were very hard, if not impossible, to kill. I say “of course” because everyone reading this has had similar dreams, and has doubtless seen many of the same horror and sci-fi movies I have. It’s a truism to observe that the supposed Death of God has barely touched beliefs in monsters and demons; alien abduction stories fit the mold of the time-honored, nearly universal demon-possession motif. A widespread perception of wolves and big cats as vicious killers hampers well-meaning efforts to reintroduce top carnivores, despite statistics showing that attacks by domestic dogs are far more dangerous. (In terms of annual human fatalities, the deadliest animal by far is the mosquito. When was the last time you had nightmares about a mosquito?)

The very fine natural history writer David Quammen has a new book out called Monsters of God, which has been garnering very good reviews; I’ll be anxious to see what he makes of these issues. The book is billed as a report on the status of man-eating carnivores around the world, most of which are now endangered or seriously threatened by poaching and/or habitat destruction. This raises not only ethical dilemmas but epistemological issues, it seems to me. Aside from the keystone ecological roles played by top carnivores, might they be said to play a keystone role in the human imagination?

I believe it was Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, who proposed a direct link between human evolutionary biology and mythology (I don’t have the book in front of me). He cited ample evidence that our hominid ancestors co-evolved with large, predatory cats, which became extinct (or were driven to extinction?) a scant million years ago or so. Thus, the terror of being stalked and killed is in some measure “hard-wired” into our genetic makeup, because a healthy fear of Things That Go Bump in the Night would’ve been a highly advantageous trait. Those among our potential ancestors who entertained a less fearful or more romantic view of Wild Nature would’ve achieved a mystical oneness with powers greater than themselves somewhere in the digestive track of a saber-toothed tiger.

I maintain that the continued existence of big critters than can eat us (and gladly will, given half a chance) is essential to the health of the human spirit. Large carnivores remind of us our place in the overall scheme of things; they serve as teachers and role models for the proper use of violence; and through our continued coexistence with them we learn to master fear and hatred, which otherwise can transform us into the very monsters we most hate. Let me outline each of these arguments in turn.

Knowing our place

Man-eating tigers, crocodiles, rhinos and the like help keep us humble. By humble, I don’t mean subservient to so-called higher powers. However much the dog-like dominance hierarchies of human social arrangements may suggest otherwise, in Nature, as Heraclitus first pointed out, there is no absolute high or low, no up or down. The Great Chain of Being is in fact a food web – a perfectly Deleuzian rhizomatic structure. Rather, as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah maintained, humility is a technical requirement for the advancement of understanding. At its most basic, it grows from a healthy awareness of the relative (in)significance of the individual ego and of humanity as a whole. It’s no accident that God’s “answer” to Job out of the whirlwind (itself a symbol of fearful, greater-than-human realities) culminates in lengthy descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These are the archetypal Monsters of God.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? . . .
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth . . .
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood . . .
(see Job, Chapter 41)

Note the language of covenant here. The author implies that by lording it over wild animals, man is playing God without any real sense of the responsibilities this entails. In the world of the Old Testament, excessive pride is seen as sinful because it implies the assumption of undeserved powers: see the Tower of Babel; Lucifer; Nebuchadnezzer; etc.

The scholar James Kugel, in his very accessible introduction to the Old Testament The Great Poems of the Bible (Free Press, 1999), stresses the ancient Hebrews’ quite different estimation of the importance of self from our own. “A human being just is very small, and God . . . is ‘very big.’ In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason – because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. [H]is own capacities . . . extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a source of reference beyond himself.”

Kugel quotes Psalm 104, that great hymn to the powers of Creation:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(Psalm 104:20-22)

This is a far cry from the modern worldview. Even those who call themselves fundamentalists are convinced of human mastery over the cosmos – in fact, they are often in the vanguard of those who call for the commercial exploitation of wilderness and the eradication of large carnivores from what they consider to be at most a semi-wild playground for human beings. Where the authors of the Bible envisioned a non-human realm filled and ordered by an essentially playful, often violent Creator and his creatures, we see frontiers, open space, resources.

Playing god, crying wolf

“But really,” a secularist reader might argue, “however you might decry it, there’s no turning back now. Humans have simply altered the biosphere too much not to play God. In fact, it would be irresponsible now to shirk our god-like responsibility to act as planetary managers. For without wise stewardship, without planning on a massive scale, there will be social and environmental chaos.”

There’s some appeal to this argument – and little doubt that the arguments of libertarians to the contrary are regularly used to downplay or excuse the crimes of the biggest despoilers of land and water and the most oppressive exploiters of human beings. But I tend to agree with the libertarians about the risks of assuming that we could ever possess the wisdom that would be required to impose a New World Order. And I wonder if true wisdom is even compatible with the kinds of judgements that are involved in running a state or managing a trans-state entity like a global corporation or the U.N.

Let’s return briefly to the Bible – although many other ancient texts and accounts from modern ethnography might serve just as well. Again and again the reader is told that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” This is, I’m afraid, one of those notions that keeps everyone but discipline-happy and obedience-prone fundamentalists from fully enjoying the Old Testament. Unless we cling to a narrow definition of wisdom as the internalization of a set of rules, how can fear possibly have any positive side effects? Isn’t God just a synonym for love writ large? How can divine love possibly inspire fear?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1959), says that the word usually translated as “fear” in this context – yirah – should actually be rendered as “awe.” Heschel defines awe as “the sense of wonder or humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.” It is, he says, an essential prerequisite to faith. The person who simply fears punishment, in this life or the next, is “considered inferior in Jewish tradition.”

“In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear,” Heschel continues. “To feel ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ is to feel ‘Whom shall I fear?’ (Psalms 27:1).” I am a little skeptical that the distinction between awe and fear can be so neatly drawn. But I concur wholeheartedly with Heschel’s conclusion: “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom . . . ”

The disastrous consequences of reductionist thinking, of turning the world into a market place, are all around us. To cite just a few of the latest outrages, planned or on-going: drilling for oil in the fragile arctic tundra, home to one of the last fully intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere; developing gas fields all along the Rocky Mountain Front; draining aquifers of fossil water to pump coal slurry hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona; clearcutting old-growth forests to make particle board and disposable chopsticks. These examples are obvious and can easily be multiplied.

A more insidious consequence of the loss of awe is the unthinking, society-wide acceptance of the proposition that humans can and should manage Nature for their own benefit. Questions of scale and time-frame are usually tossed aside. Discussions of the ethics of new technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering tend to devolve into narrow considerations of human self-interest, sometimes expanded to include questions about what might happen to ‘the environment’ if, say, genetically engineered traits escape into the wild. But the operative assumptions are baseless fantasies: that human self-interest is an obvious, measurable and culturally neutral thing; and that it can be separated from the interests of non-human species and of the biosphere at large.

With all due respect to George Orwell, it seems to me that we are closer to the antiseptic horror of Brave New World than the slave-state of 1984. Technologies that will allow parents to pre-determine the sex of their offspring, and possibly many other traits as well, are already coming into use. To accept such decision making as normal and rational is to forego far more access to freedom than we would lose through simple tyranny, for in this case it is the freedom of Nature itself that is being infringed upon. The same argument may be made against genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the production of chemicals that have no analogue in nature and no precedent in evolutionary history. In each case we are trying to fit Creation into a container of our own making, and in each case we our courting doom.

In the Bible, as we have seen, Wild Nature is Creation at its most elemental. We in the West derive much of our sense of wilderness from the Bible, of course. Wilderness is not merely the mirror-image of the pastoral realm; it is also a source of refuge – even salvation. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness for forty years to acclimate them to their new-found relationship with Yahweh; Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days before he fully accepts his own role. Fields must be rested every seventh year – allowed to grow wild – to regain their vigor. Every seven-times-seventh year, during the jubilee, land must be not only rested but redistributed equally among the people. That’s because land is not ultimately owned by human beings, but held in trust for them by God: that is to say, it is ultimately free.

In the Hebrew Bible, major infractions of the covenantal relationship with God lead to droughts, crop-destroying hailstorms, plagues of locusts – what we would call environmental consequences. And when God reclaims land, it returns to its original state of wild (i.e. willful, self-willed) freedom. In the wilderness the wild donkey roams free of the halter; storms and whirlwinds wreak their fury; young lions and baby eagles scream for blood. What might be seen as disastrous in the human realm is an integral part of the awesome grandeur of Creation.

What we know of ecology bears out the intuitions of the ancient Hebrews, which are shared to a great degree by indigenous peoples around the world. Our attempts to manage land and water for economic ends usually involve the radical curtailing of natural processes that appear inconvenient and highly destructive. Streams and rivers that regularly flood their banks must be channelized, diverted, contained by levees, locks and dams. Wildfires must be prevented. Trees felled by natural disturbances must be “salvaged.” Insect and disease outbreaks must be battled through every means necessary. In all these cases, attempts to place limits on the violent power of Nature involves us in the perpetration of far greater violence against the health and integrity of ecosystem processes.

Not surprisingly, the professionals charged with managing our public lands strongly resist any implication that their efforts might be counter-productive. Never mind that some ecosystems must burn; that regular floods, tornadoes, icestorms, insect outbreaks, etc. are part of natural disturbance regimes. Never mind that essential processes such as pollination, plant-fungus interactions and nutrient and water cycles are endangered by the interruption or prevention of those processes. Never mind that effective land management in many cases is oxymoronic, predicated upon knowledge that is fragmentary or non-existent. The notion that some areas should simply be left alone (after some minimal restoration efforts) is anathema to the managerial ethos. Indeed, many higher-level bureaucrats in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management appear to agree with their counterparts in industry: that self-willed land has been “locked up.” Freedom is Slavery!

Wilderness advocates and opponents alike say that the distinction between humans and Nature is artificial, and so it is. Perhaps in another century or two we will achieve the wisdom that many American Indian tribes once possessed, and “wise use” will no longer be a grotesque caricature of true, thoughtful stewardship. But what strikes me about the whole wilderness debate is the absence of any recognition that wilderness – broadly defined – is not so much a realm where human beings are absent, but where larger-than-human realities are present.

Chief among those realities, of course, are the Wild Things that can Eat You Up. Kids love monsters, as Maurice Sendak understood: it’s somehow fun to be scared. Campfire ghost stories and monsters under the bed are inescapable facts of childhood. And well into their adulthood, many people here in the East (for example) remain convinced that cougars are still out there, in the semi-mythical back-of-beyond – and many people are actually excited by the possibility! “The truth is out there,” as agent Mulder says about extraterrestrials. And maybe it is.

Keystone predators

This is more than an idle dream (or errant nightmare). Recent biological research is bearing out the intuition that predation is an essential part of the natural scheme. It is not simply a matter of populations of prey species becoming too large in the absence of natural predators. In fact, populations of many species are controlled by predation, but less directly than the way we suppose. Studies of large herbivores have shown that the healthy fear of predation is much more important than the actual number of killings, which would be too small in aggregate to constitute much of an effect. This fear is healthy not only for individuals of the prey species, whose chance of survival is thereby maximized, but also for many other species in the same ecosystem.

If predators are removed from an ecosystem, large herbivores like deer and elk quickly lose their fear of browsing in the open year-round. (Hunting seasons enforce only a temporary reversion to more natural behavior.) They tend to congregate in larger groups, during daytime hours, and simply spend a lot more time feeding – leading to higher reproduction rates and population explosions. Biologists refer to this as a switch from time-minimizing to energy-maximizing behavior. Sensitive environments such as streambanks and natural forest openings are suddenly much more vulnerable to over-browsing. As populations expand, whole suites of plant species can disappear along with everything that depends upon them for food or habitat.

When top carnivores are reintroduced, the ripple effects can be far-reaching. Mid-sized predators are forced to alter their behavior along with herbivores, and their numbers will drop in a similar manner. Populations of many species of birds, small mammals and other prey of these mid-sized predators will rebound. At the same time, brushy, edge and herbaceous habitats will begin to recover, with positive repercussions for many more species and for the recovery of other ecosystem functions. Streamside alders – essential food for beavers – may successfully sprout after a century of severely arrested development: this has been the case in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of wolves. Beavers play a keystone role in the creation of wetland habitats. Even though they are directly preyed upon by wolves – which places a severe restriction on how far they can go from water, hence limiting the size and shape of their disturbances – beavers benefit enormously from the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.

Biologists still have a lot to learn: for example, how do different species of “top” carnivores, such as wolves, cougars and grizzlies, interact within a single landscape, and what might be the ecological ramifications of those relationships? The state of scientific knowledge is limited in part because of the success of bounty programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in removing carnivores from much of North America. These programs had the blessing of wildlife managers of the time, who were heirs to a Christian or Manichaean worldview that saw herbivores as good and predators as useless parasites whose removal, it was thought, would lead to the natural equivalent of utopia. This experiment failed as catastrophically as contemporaneous movements to create a socialist paradise (though doubtless for different reasons).

Unfortunately, however, we need specialized training – not just awe and humility – simply to perceive the damage wrought by this failed attempt to play God. Humans are adaptable animals; a short memory can be a distinct blessing in a world filled with terrors. And who really wants to be told that the pleasingly park-like forest where we go running and the nice, open lakeshore where we go for picnics are actually radically simplified, impoverished landscapes that fewer and fewer other species can call home? Who doesn’t thrill to the grace and beauty of a doe nuzzling her fawn, and shudder to think of the fangs and claws that honed such perfection through millions of years of co-evolution?

Beware more beasts

I still remember my first true encounter with existential terror. I think I must’ve been around 14. I was lying on my back in the field, looking up at the night sky, when all of a sudden I felt chilled to the core by the thought of all that “outer space” that was not and would never be human. I suppose the best way to express it would be to say that it was an encounter with supreme indifference. I realized in the most immediate and visceral way imaginable that everything humans think they knew about the universe is most likely, simply wrong. As I continued to stare upwards, I had the sensation that I was looking up into a gaping mouth with countess burning teeth, opening wider and wider.

Was this the kind of awe that leads to faith? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it was a profoundly humbling experience. Heshel makes the important distinction that God is not the mystery itself but the revealer of mysteries; certainly I did not for a moment feel any impulse to worship the “outer space monster” that had intruded upon my imagination. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my immediate re-visioning of a cold indifference into a kind of fire-breathing monster wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to humanize the mystery? Isn’t this what the shaman does: stamp a human face on every part of the cosmos? Endow every sublime and mysterious thing with sentience, such that even the most terrible beings display a predator’s fond regard for its prey?

Presumably, anyone given to the kinds of thoughts and impressions I habitually entertained as a teen would have been prepared for shamanic initiation in a gatherer-hunter society. But while a shaman-to-be would often allow himself (or herself) to be symbolically eaten by a future power-animal, most if not all members of such societies would seek a relationship with a spirit guardian, often personified (yes, that’s the right word!) as an animal. The near-universality and apparent great antiquity of such practices led the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Others) to speculate about “how the animals made us human.” Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not paint animals on cave walls; recent thinking depicts them without symbolic language, and hence without the cultural flexibility to adapt to the violent and abrupt climatic shifts of the Paleolithic.

Genocide against these competing hominids may have been our original sin. Be that as it may, there is mounting evidence that the megafauna of the Americas, which evolved in the absence of humans, was driven to rapid extinction by the Paleolithic invaders of 14,000 B.P. It is interesting that virtually every modern hunting people investigated by ethnographers in the last 150 years evinces a deep sense of angst about the necessity of killing. A sense of human fallenness seems a near-universality.

In indigenous worldviews, the prey animals must be implored in advance and propitiated after the fact for the gift (or loan) of their bodies. Often there are mythical Owners of the game who must also be propitiated. Strict rules (“taboos”) govern every aspect of the hunt and subsequent use of the animal. No part of a carcass may be tossed idly aside or otherwise treated with disrespect. Can we really say, with the spectres of Mad Cow Disease and regular e-coli outbreaks hovering over our antiseptic supermarket shelves, that these beliefs are so much superstition?

Christians would do well to remember that they are alone among the three Peoples of the Book in lacking a ritual analogue to these most ancient codes of reverential conduct toward our non-human brethren. From my perspective, as an outsider to all three religions, it does seem as if, in rejecting the minutely detailed halakhic superstructure of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Christianity deprived itself of a great source of complexity and nuance. The radically simplified mental landscape of the religion of St. Paul proved all to easy to subvert: with the conversion of Constantine, “love thine enemy” became “in hoc signo vinces.” A kind of schizophrenia crept in. The book of Revelation swarms with fevered nightmares of beasts, paranoid visions of cosmic evil and power-fantasies about a sacrificial lamb come back to life as a super-carnivore. And the Church became more Roman than the Romans in its fanatic determination to extract confessions and punish all thought-crimes with torture and execution.

Thankfully, the worst excesses of extreme dualism were kept at arm’s length. But there’s little doubt in my mind that our on-going war against the wild has deep roots in Christian tradition, whatever its ultimate origin (the Greeks, the Persians, the ideology of the Roman empire). Rebels against God included not simply heretics but wizards and witches (eventually meaning anyone with access to unofficial knowledge or power) and all the monsters of the bestiaries. The brutish, speech-deprived wild man was the archetypal enemy of the knight-errant in the mythology that grew out of the Crusades and formed the first truly popular literature after the introduction of the printing press. As most of us know only from reading Cervantes’ brilliant send-up of the genre, such romance novels were all the rage during the decades that saw the Conquest of the New World and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Love thine enemy” may or may not be too idealistic a formulation. But common sense alone suggests that respect must be extended toward our opponents, our adversaries, toward everything with the power to harm us. The cumulative wisdom of the ages – based on reverence, which is respect taken to a higher power – teaches that whatever has the power to harm may also heal us. The figure of the monster is thus deeply ambiguous. Our natural discomfort with ambiguity leads us to try to capture and confine it in one of two mental cages: either as an all-malevolent demon, or as a cuddly stuffed animal (cf. Defenders of Wildlife’s ever-popular version of the Gray Wolf).

I greatly fear that without the continuing presence of wolves, bears, jaguars, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and the like, an irreplaceable treasure house of visions to counter human self-centeredness will be lost. Our descendents will forget that there ever was such a thing as a beast whose violence was not only not malevolent, but could even be seen as necessary and beautiful. Already our children’s impressions of Wild Nature are shaped largely by Walt Disney, even as we teach them to fear the all-too-real human monsters that actively wish them harm.* Already, we in the United States are reverting to a medieval view of righteousness beset by cosmic evil, of barbarians at the gates (when in fact the barbarians are in charge). A universal myopia threatens to leave us forever suspended between utopia and dystopia: Don Quixote’s impossible dream unable to hide the horror of the endlessly recapitulated Conquest. Genocide, ecocide: we become what we most fear. “Feed my lambs,” said the gentle voice on Rwandan public radio over and over on the morning when the state-sanctioned killing began. God help us all.
*See The illusion of safety in Creek Running North for a valuable corrective to the society-wide perception of the risk of child-snatching.

In the ice forest

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

for Jennifer, currently in the rainforest at Tela, Honduras

I enter the forest of ice
slowly, and on foot.

Trees creak in the slightest breeze.
Small branches break & fall
with a tinkling of bells.

The everywhere green of the mountain laurel
never looked fresher, each leaf
under glass.

The sun comes out.
A thousand swords leap from their scabbards.

On top of the snow, in every dip
& hollow, windrows of black
birch seeds.

The tree itself

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This weekend’s full moon marks the minor Jewish holiday Tu biShvat, the New Year of the Trees. This is one of four New Years in the Jewish calendar. Rachel Barenblat over at Velveteen Rabbi has a good essay on the origin and meaning of this celebration, which seems to be gaining more significance with the spread of ecotheology. (See Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s site for more on ecotheology’s Rabbinic and Kabbalistic precedents and its call for healing and renewal.) Barenblat points out that

Trees are a potent symbol within Judaism. In Genesis, Adam and Eve get themselves exiled from Eden by eating the fruit of the wrong tree. According to the Zohar, that tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was merely a branch of the Tree of Life until the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, at which point the branch split off and became a tree unto itself. In this teaching, tikkun olam (the healing of the world) means re-unifying the two trees into their initial, singular, state. In Deuteronomy, man is likened to a tree; in Proverbs, the Torah is likened to a tree of life. The Kabbalists of medieval years had a variety of ways of conceptualizing God, including the “sefirotic tree,” an arboreal diagram of divine spheres through which holy emanations flowed into creation.

So this seems like a fitting point to input the passage from Martin Buber alluded to yesterday. I and Thou is my favorite single work of philosophy or religion, and has been a huge influence on me (as on so many other artist- and poet-types) since I first read it in my mid-teens. If you haven’t read it, used copies are not hard to come by . . . but be sure to get the authorized translation by Walter Kaufmann, published by Scribner’s in 1970.

I read somewhere that Buber caught hell from some of his more traditional co-religionists for this passage, which occurs quite early in the book as the first real fleshing-out of his thesis. Why didn’t he use a human being, they wanted to know? I guess to such people the tree-imagery of the Bible is so much empty symbolism, or something. (One wonders what they make of the Song of Songs!) At any rate, here’s the offending passage:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. the power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does then the tree have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Finally, it’s worth noting for those of us who live within the boundaries of the traditional homeland of the Iroquois Confederacy – or in a frontier region where they exercised sovereignty, in my case – that we are only a couple weeks away from their first big holiday after the New Year: the Blessing of the Maples (time varies according to when the sap rises).

Here’s the liturgy from the Longhouse Religion of Handsome Lake, as recorded and translated by Arthur Parker:

The address to the maple, the chief of trees and the prayer to the Creator
A Seneca ceremony

The priest stands at the roots of a [sugar] maple. A fire is burning and the priest casts tobacco in the fire and as its smoke arises he says:

To the tree:
O partake of this incense,
You the forests!
We implore you
To continue as before,
The flowing waters of the maple.

To the Creator and the tree:
It is the will of the Creator
That [from] a certain tree
Should flow such water.
Now may no accidents occur
To children roaming in the forests.
Now this day is yours
May you enjoy it, this day.

To the Creator:
We give thanks, oh God, to you,
You who dwell in heaven.
We have done our duty
You have seen us do it.
So it is done.”

One-shot poems, 5 a.m.

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A ladybug is sleeping on the letter N.
Somehow this reminds me to go turn
the thermostat up.
Full moon above the low cloud ceiling.
Under their roof of snow a city of voles.
In the not-quite dark of the not-yet light,
silhouette of an opossum against the snow
scuttling from tree to tree.
Directly underneath me where
I sit and type,
something is chewing.
The eaves grow longer teeth,
ice dams overflow.
My burrow is damp.
The moon shows its face for half a minute
through a thin screen of cloud,
snow falling sideways.

Questioning dreaming

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I had two blog-related thoughts in the middle of the night and can only remember one of them, more or less. Of the other I retain an outline: it seems that I was compiling quotes, and had found one that made a worthy companion to Buber’s meditation on a tree from I and Thou, which I’ve been meaning to include for some time. I did not wake up completely in either instance, but simply made a mental note to retrieve on waking. This is dangerous, given the inexact impressions of the thinking mind during sleep.

Perhaps as I grow older, I will take to imitating my father, who keeps a pen and a stack of 3×5″ slips of paper on his nightstand. When he has what seems like an important middle-of-the-night thought, he’ll half-wake up, write down a few key words or phrases on a slip of paper without turning on the light and drop it on the floor where he’ll see it in the morning. Sometimes, he says, he’ll get up in the morning and find that the stretch of carpet between bed and door is white with thought-spoor from a productive night of dreaming.

This would be a good place to launch into a disquisition on the anthropology of dreaming, but I’m missing the one really essential text: Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretation, edited by Barbara Tedlock. Also, I did a lot of research and thinking on this topic for my book-length poem Cibola the year before last, so I’m a little burnt out on the subject. (This isn’t necessarily a plug; I now regard Cibola as an artistic failure, though I still feel there’s some pretty strong writing in it – mostly in the last third – and a lot of good insights.)* The book incorporates regular sections of epigrams from various sources, both as an aid to the reader’s understanding and as a nod to meta-texuality and multi-vocalic whatnot. One of the things I quote from is George Steiner’s essay “The Historicity of Dreams” (in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995, Yale U.P., 1996).

The essay is subtitled “two questions to Freud.” It throws out a number of points worth pondering, for example: “Animals dream. Am I altogether in error in thinking that the philosophical and historical implications of this platitude are enormous, and that they have received remarkably little attention? For if animals dream, as they manifestly do, such ‘dreams’ are generated and experienced outside any linguistic matrix.” The ability to dream in other members of the animal kingdom is often cited as evidence for the view that dreaming is necessary to affix events and images in the memory. Steiner cautions, however, that “not only can we have no proof that the dreams of animals occur in such ‘imagistic-sensory’ mode, but we cannot even ‘think’ any such mode without adulterating it into verbal discourse. Man can almost be defined as a species with only exceedingly limited and falsifying access to the universe (for it is nothing less) of silence.” (Emphasis added.) **

“Did hominid species, in their intimate co-existence not only with primates but with the whole animal kingdom, dream zoo-logically?” Steiner asks. This line of speculation is interesting to me because of my own sense that many dreams are fundamentally altered by their conversion into narrative. And the possibility of hyper-linguistic dreams such as I had last night – i.e., examples of abstract thinking of the kind that are rare enough during waking hours for most of us who are not scientists or philosophers – implies to me that such conversion may not always be completely after-the-fact, upon waking, as the rest of Steiner’s study of dream interpretation assumes. Rather, an almost simultaneous translation may be going on.

Who is the translator, then? Is it the same as the witnessing “I” (eye) of the lucid dreamer? And what to make of the division between witness and protagonist within the selfhood of the dreamer? This could point in several directions. My usual anthropological interests make me want to try and trace a connection with what comparative religionist Karl Luckert refers to as the pre-human flux of mythological time among gatherer-hunters. I’m also thinking of the many ways I’ve read about in which dreaming (and other unconscious or semi-conscious states) can be developed and directed for shamanic purposes: to divine, to heal, to harm – even to kill, in some cultures.***

Steiner is sensitive to these possibilities and nuances as well: “We do not sleep at the same hours, in the same milieu, in the same psychological aura – climatic, nutritive, sexual – as did, say, an ancient Greek, a medieval serf, a Trobriand islander. . . . The dreams recorded by the royal scribes of ancient Egypt or the Bible, by Plutarch or the medieval allegorists differ among themselves as radically as they differ from those set down by anthropologists and ethnographers in the field. They differ strikingly, as well, from those cited as typical in the literature of psychoanalysis.” He goes on to ponder the great gulf between traditional dream-interpretation, in which “dreams are the momentary runes which the future inscribes on the sleeping soul,” and modern psychoanalysis, in which “dreams feed not on prophesy but on remembrance.

“The semiological vector points not to the future but to the past. The dynamics of opacity are not those of the unknown but of the suppressed.” This reorientation first came about among European “Enlightenment” thinkers of the 17th century, he says, and gathered steam with the Romantics, for whom dreams were “homecomings to the ‘visionary gleam’ of birth and childhood.” Steiner proposes several reasons for the shift. First, our conception of the future became mechanical, statistical and stochastic – i.e. “scientific.” Gradually, then, “responsible knowledge is assimilated to daylight (cf. the light-symbolism, the noon-poetics in the iconography and discursive conventions of the Newtonian revolution). Concomitantly, night and its output are assigned to the domain of illusion, of childishness, of pathology. As Goya has it, in that most haunting of his engravings, nightmares are born of the sleep of reason.”

This may be an accurate analysis of Enlightenment prejudices, but it’s hardly a new trope. Sufis, Buddhists, the Kogi Indians of Columbia and others have long used not only the image of enlightenment for the ideal/natural state of the thinking mind, but also the analogy of waking from sleep to describe its experience. But of course Steiner must know this; it doesn’t invalidate his argument, simply re-situates it within a truly global hermeneutic of unconsciousness compared with which modern psychoanalysis seems infantile indeed.

Our guide continues with a brief discussion of the reevaluation of childhood during the Romantic period, which is obviously still very much with us (and very much worth celebrating – especially now in this “Seusstennial” year!). A third possible factor in the shift is “that of the internalizations of experience which come near to defining modernity itself.”

“Such conjectures are,” Steiner hastens to add, “too vague, too portentious, to be of real use.” I beg to differ! What he calls vague I prefer to think of as suggestive.

The remainder of his essay is devoted to rebutting the “arbitrary naivety” of Freud in regard to poetics. (“The phenomenology of dreaming is embedded in the evolution and structures of language. A theory of dreams is also a linguistics or, at the very least, a poetics.”) His own, relatively safe and highly provisional conclusion about the relationship of dream interpretations to waking life is that they reflect and transmute not only individual but shared experiences. And, he implies, they may be predictive in at least the limited sense that one’s unconscious mind can be open to aspects of the larger social and historical milieu ignored or blocked by the waking intellect.

My mother is sometimes prone to dreams that seem vaguely prophetic or clairvoyant. Her only moment of true clairvoyance was many years ago, when she knew the exact moment of her beloved grandmother’s death. I had a similar experience two years ago, when I had a very vivid dream about an old acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen or even much thought about in several years, at what turned out to be the approximate hour of his death. In my dream, he was getting out of a van right next to me in a parking lot, but seemed not to recognize me when I called his name. In fact, as it turned out he had been driving a van when he careened off the highway and was killed. But I am not sure that these dream-visitations occupy the same order of reality as predictive dreams.

My mother included in her book Appalachian Autumn a dream which she had not herself considered to be prophetic. Interestingly, her editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press wanted to take it out – she found its inclusion irrelevant and a little melodramatic, apparently. Before reading the manuscript, based only on my mother’s telling of it and knowledge of the proximate events (which I had not been at home to witness), I felt moved to make a poem out of it. Thus innocently and inadvertently I stumbled upon what seemed to me and to her to be a logical reading. The only part I fudged here, obviously, is the suggestion that she “remembers her dream” a week later, during the event it seems to have foreshadowed. I can’t recall if the part about the guy swallowing his plug of tobacco was my invention or not; it was a later addition to try and offset the high drama with a touch of humor.


It shook her out of a sound sleep, she says,
it seemed so real: the catamount
with all four feet dug into her flesh
riding her back like a demon in an old folktale.

Was it the lion’s voice or her own
she heard as she tried to turn
& couldn’t, couldn’t look,
doubled under that unearthly weight?

One clear autumn morning a week later
she wakes to the roar of a lumberman’s bulldozer
& remembers her dream. The man looking
down from his nest of gearshifts

must wonder at this gray-haired woman
who faces him from the other side
of the blade with hands
half-clenched. He reaches for the switch

& it shudders into silence. Don’t worry,
, he says, eyes watering (no doubt
from swallowing when he should’ve spat),
we’ll cut well above your line.

This Cat is yellow & its teeth and claws are steel.
It lays the wooded spine of the mountain bare.
My mother runs to the far field
to flee the chainsaw’s scream.****

As for the thought I had last night, it was neither prophetic nor especially profound. I’m sure it’ll worm its way into a blog post at some point; I’ll keep y’all posted.

But I think that’s really why I do my blogging first thing in the morning, preferably beginning well before dawn: to take advantage of the lingering impressions from my dreams, which I otherwise rarely make any particular effort to remember. I consider myself a pragmatist on the question of dream-interpretation. For the writing mind too enters a mild state of trance; the self-conscious ego is forced into a temporary retreat. Whose dark words are these, then, with which I am so presumptuously attempting to map the via negativa?

*A pdf version of Cibola is available here. Be advised that there are no page numbers (for no better reason than my very incomplete mastery of Pagemaker at the time of composition) so anyone wishing to print it out should be careful to keep the pages in order.
**I love that “almost”! Steiner’s caution as a thinker is one of his most attractive attributes to me. Without it I would probably be completely intimidated, given his immense erudition.
***See Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) – the rare example of an anthropological page-turner.
****Included in Spoil (another pdf), p. 32.

A bad case of the mumbles

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The screen comes to life in a way that pen & paper never could. The cursor taps its foot. Down below, the computer hums. I am humming this morning a phrase from a song I learned off the radio a good while back. It was in Arabic, I think, or maybe Urdu. No, I am whistling under my breath – all breath, that is: pitch, but no tune. (If you don’t know what I mean I can’t help you. Have you ever tried to describe whistling to someone who can’t whistle? Better to hum, then!) I line my words up as if they were in a poem, but no one’s fooled: my thoughts this morning are nothing but humdrum prose. Sad-eyed, like a hound squatting to take a dump. Glum. I should get with it, act as if I believed words were lifeless dumb inert mechanical servants. Why persist in this fe adorable que el Destino blasfema, this strange irreligion of mine? I have never seen a man turn into a bird, but I believe it is distinctly possible. I have never been shaken by a god inside or out, gourd rattle that I am. I want to shout hey HEY! Ho! but all I can do is giggle. Let others wave signs & chant. Slogans fill me with dread: words outfitted in little uniforms & made to march in a circle. They proclaim we are sincere but anger is so terribly untrue! I would go dressed for an off-color skit about extinction & the first bird Noah released from the ark – not that pale clay pigeon but the other, the one they were all anxious to get rid of because he spoke raucously & out of turn. Said Awk, ark & took off. Awkward fact, too, that he never came back. And while Noah was getting drunk & putting on a show, somewhere a raven was circling, building a great hoop of sticks at the top of the tallest tree, flying all over the earth with branches in his bill. Or something like that. With a better soundtrack, of course.
[Alguna] fe adorable… is a quote from Vallejo, “Los Heraraldos Negros” – “[Some] cherished faith that Fate laid a curse upon.”

The Dao of Jones

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it,” Aristotle drily observed (see Philosopher or blog?). This is one of the first and most obvious indications that Heraclitus’ Account may have resembled the enigmatic Chinese text Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing).

Classical Chinese lacked punctuation altogether. What grammarians call particles – one-syllable words whose function is to denote possession, interrogation, emphasis, etc. – served instead. (Think of them as punctuation marks that you pronounce.) In addition, fairly regular meter and end-rhyme aided enormously in the reading of poetic works like the Laozi. But entire schools of interpretation have coalesced around opposing views on comma placement in this most gnomic of texts. The lack of differentiation between singular and plural adds to the confusion.

Take the famous opening chapter. The first couplet is uncontroversial; translations vary simply because of the difficulty of translating Dao as both noun and verb.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao; ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
“The dao (knowledge/way) that can be known/followed is not the constant/enduring/eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

The comma wars begin with the very next couplet:
Wu ming tian di zhi shi; yu ming wan wu zhi mu.
“Without name(s) heaven-earth [possessive particle] beginning; having name(s) ten-thousand creatures [possessive particle] mother.”
D. C. Lau, dean of the most prominent contemporary school of Western scholars of philosophical Daoism, in his translation for Penguin (Tao Te Ching, 1963), followed the more conventional interpretation. Based on a comma placement after the second character in each clause, he got:
“The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.”
But an edition I picked up in Taiwan – part of a series of critical editions of the classics designed for college students – places the comma after the first syllable in each clause. This is possible because wu has the stand-alone meaning “void,” and yu is the common word for “being.” This produces a reading something as follows:
“Void: a name for the beginning of the cosmos;
Being: a name for the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The divergence between interpretations continues for the rest of this chapter, which is in many ways a key to the whole work. For example, the third couplet appears to deal with the question of desire. Lau translates,
“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations,”
with “it” understood to refer to the Dao.
But equally plausible is the following:
“Thus, eternal void: seek to contemplate its mysteries;
Eternal being: seek to contemplate its manifestations.”

One can begin to see why the Daodejing has become the second-most-translated book in the world, right after the Bible. I once came up with a semi-facetious translation of the first chapter that was predicated upon the assumption that the author was something of a cynic. This is possible with just one more turn of the interpretative wheel. In D. C. Lau’s translation the last portion of the chapter reads:
“These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

Sounds properly mystical, doesn’t it? The trouble is, we have no way of knowing whether that was the original intent of the author(s). After all, he/they did use the pseudonym Old Fellow (Laozi). Since all sages were presumed to be old and venerable, this is tantamount to signing it “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones.” What were they trying to hide? Was the whole thing just a spoof on a genre which may have included many dozens of earnest attempts to repeat the critical success of the great Zhuangzi? (The evidence from some newly discovered texts argues strongly for reversing the traditional chronological ordering of the two classics of so-called philosophical Daoism – probably not a real category at all, by the way.)

The late Warring States Period was a time of profound disillusionment. Zhuangzi includes sections that espouse philosophies of primitivism and of rational self-interest (the Yangist school). The latter contains what may be the original encounter-of-an-earnest-worthy-with-a-wise-old-fisherman dialogue. This (or another like it) was presumably the basis for the “Daoist” story of the cynical fisherman (cited in Monday’s post) who tells Chu Yuan to become one with the fishes.

The morass of competing views about Life, the Universe and Everything was no doubt troubling to many in this period. But for some it must have been a source of amusement, as well. I have no good evidence for this, but it tickles my fancy to think of the Laozi as a deliberately obscure book, in which the esoteric interpretation is actually the expected or exoteric reading, and the hidden or truly esoteric meaning is – well, something as follows:

“These two categories, emerging together, (appear to) name different (things), so their coincidence is taken for a mystery. One mystery after another! (This opens) the floodgates to endless obscurantism.”